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Authenticity & Music

Is some music more "real" or "authentic" than other music? How much does that matter?

Authentic bluegrass?

Yes that's me in 1976, mugging on mandolin, in a seersucker jacket...

In this 1976 photo, I look like a genuine bluegrass musician, but I was whimsically trying to adopt the mannerisms of Bill Monroe for the photo more than I was focused on playing authentic or straight bluegrass those days.

Musicians, critics and listeners of all sorts have long been attracted to music that they regard as being honest, real or authentic, or else repelled by music that they see as fake, insincere or too theatrical. No doubt there were people who felt that certain Gregorian chants or operas were more "real," "pure," or "authentic" than others, but because I am an American musician, I am going to try to just discuss the topic as it relates to my world. The same issues and patterns involving the concept of authenticity likely also show up in languages, sushi, Sumo wrestling, clothing, and every other cultural element you can think of.

The issues surrounding real or perceived musical authenticity are powerful, puzzling and far-reaching, almost as vital as the concept of credibility of a witness in court. Plenty of people are in jail because a witness who testified seemed believable, and maybe scientists will one day be able to measure the radiation of honesty or integrity that we do or don't emit. (Maybe that's what a lie detector is, and we already know those aren't infallible.) I would read any books or articles I found on musical authenticity, since the subject is really intriguing, and even head-spinning at times.

It's not always a popular thing to bring up this subject, since you don't make friends by suggesting to people that their favorite artists are perceived by others as fake or otherwise not genuine. I feel pretty sure that fans in the "Early Music" corner of the classical music world exhibit the kinds of behaviors either praising or condemning artists based on their perceived authenticity that you would find in blues, country, Klezmer or any other music arenas. (My brain is churning hard, I'm even wondering if considerations of authenticity enter into the arenas of parody, satire or burlesque entertainment. Perhaps part of the appeal of these art forms could be that they avoid the whole issue by intentionally being about and exaggerating the opposite of authenticity. Could there be an authentic or un-authentic parody?)

I am still puzzling over an observation I made backstage at the Newport Folk Festival. (I wrote a blog post about my gig there.) I noticed that a few of the performers, such as blues bands, stood out because they seemed to be wearing costumes. Their thin ties, porkpie hats and vintage suits were really obvious as we were all munching backstage food, and I remember that the "cowboy" look with blue jeans, cowboy boots, collared shirt, string tie and hat was also represented by a few artists, who I guessed didn't even realize they had chosen to wear what was essentially also a costume. The majority of the performers, though, were not in what I recognized as "uniforms" of a music genre. I thought back to my years of folk festivals, and realized that the number of artists "in costume" was noticeably dwindling. The usual mix of uniformed bluegrass bands, gospel groups and such wasn't there. It struck me that the musicians at Newport who probably felt themselves to be playing "authentic" forms of music were possibly doing very focused musical theater, and the ones who seemed to be genreless, ordinary-looking people may have been the most "authentic" since they were possibly just being themselves. We sense that perhaps John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters were being themselves when they performed in their stage clothing of choice, but modern musicians who dress like them might be instead doing a form of musical theater.

I'm not sure I can offer any conclusions here, or guarantee you clarity in this fuzzy world, but if you are a musician or music fan who hasn't really thought about these issues, I hope to be able to rattle your thinking machinery a bit as we go into the rabbit hole of musical authenticity.

The Authenticity Hall of Mirrors

Many artists may come to your mind, as examples of either "real" or "fake." Probably the high-water mark in my lifetime for public concern about fake music was the Milli Vanilli scandal in 1990 when the band's Grammy award was rescinded because the artists were revealed to have lip-synched their hit song, though now even highly respected artists now typically lip-synch at big events like the Super Bowl. Cello virtuoso Yo Yo Ma finger-synched his instrumental performance of "Simple Gifts" at President Obama's inauguration, but wasn't met by a public outcry. China passed a law outlawing lip-synching after the world was repulsed by too much faux-singing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The issue of publicly pretending to perform music on stage is not quite the same as the over-arching authenticity images of artists, but it gets us thinking. The authenticity component in music seems to have several forms, and it's interesting though a bit nerdy to pick it apart. Let's dissect it a little to see what it is made of, though it may be more of a mirage than anything truly tangible.

Authenticity often involves a connection to an established genre. Was that a good Chicago blues band? Hey, check out this awesome bluegrass banjo player. A harder kind of question is whether or not someone is a "real" bluegrass banjo player or a "real" Cape Breton fiddler, which is related to how well established and defined the genre is as much as it is about the specific musician. The criteria we use to evaluate authenticity involve a series of questions we can ask: Is the artist genetically or culturally authentic as the deliverer of the music? A full-blooded Polynesian playing Hawaiian songs will register differently on our authenticity meters than a German accountant, and right or wrong, we can't help tending to assign more authenticity to an artist who has those kinds of credentials, even if it involves a type of cultural racism. The whole concept of genres of music invites deep questions about authenticity. It can be argued that huge numbers of respected musicians performing in all sorts of styles of music are merely doing musical theater, while consciously or unconsciously playing the authenticity card to market or validate their music. They of course aren't going to admit it, and neither will their record companies or booking agents. Their fans certainly don't want to hear about this. So is there even such a thing as truth, and which explanation is right?

Are the songs being played properly authentic? That can be tough to determine, because it's sometimes really charming and awesome when artists go way outside their usual genres to choose some of their material. A song itself could be "unauthentic," but if the performance was done according to the rules and patterns of the genre then it can pass muster. I loved when Jim & Jesse (old-school bluegrass band) played Chuck Berry songs, or when Toots & the Maytals did an awesome reggae version of John Denver's “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” You could also ask if the instruments used to play various types of music are properly authentic, or how much it matters if the artists have the right clothes or hairstyles that have come to be associated with kinds of music. This kind of compartmentalized thinking is something there is too much of, and it's hard not to be pulled into doing it. If a "bluegrass" band does some covers of Beatles songs that are done in the bluegrass style, does that make someone want to re-classify the band as "newgrass"? Though I said I was going to stick to my own kind of music, but I do wonder how they measure things in classical music, where the artist is not supposed to inject too much of their own feelings, and it's mostly about the composer. Are certain performances or interpretations deemed to be more authentic or "valid" than others? When non-European musicians started playing classical music there must have been complaints of un-authenticity. Maybe someone reading this who knows that musical world can write something on the subject.

Are the artists themselves being sufficiently "real" or honest? This is harder to tell by glancing, but it is the kind of thing that many fans observe and pay a lot of attention to. When you hear a good performer or a really good recording by a compelling artist, there's no question that there is something vital going on. Whether any particular artist can be permanently certified as real, honest and authentic is a call I don't want to make, and we all have good shows and not so good shows. Nobody is "hot" or "real" all the time. If you seem to be, then it's possible you have found a way to package and "phone in" your performances, though it also could mean that you are extremely professional, focused and dedicated.

Paint By Numbers?

Freight Hoppers

The Age of Information is making it easier for almost anyone to do a quite commendable job of learning a particular style of music as long as it has been previously documented in recorded media, though the deeper (and possibly meaningless) questions of the "authenticity" of the results remain eternally puzzling.

You no longer have to live in a particular place and at a particular time in history to get access to its cultural information, and the doors to access musical information that is only stored in the human brain or paper notation are slamming rapidly. They preserved the written words of Latin, but no one knows how they pronounced anything. The sound was lost, though the spelling and meaning remained. When the first Japanese Bluegrass band, The Bluegrass 45, came to the U.S. in 1971, they caused a sensation in the Bluegrass world, because they were actually quite good. How is it that a man named Yo Yo Ma plays Bach beautifully, and American, Polish-blooded lesbian Maria Zemantauski plays excellent Flamenco guitar? Now there are Russians and Czechs who play Bluegrass, and Australian blues artists, and possibly we have only begun to see the proliferation of cross-cultural musicianship.

Is this normal or unnatural? There is no ultimate authority or Supreme Court of Musical Authenticity to pass any final judgments, so we are doomed to wonder.

Most players in the U.S. in my generation and probably also the previous one learned primarily from recordings, rather than from sheet music or by tagging along behind the masters on the street corners. This kind of oral learning from audio can be done just as easily by a Romanian with a record player or a smartphone as someone from the proper geographical area. Andrei Shepelyov, credited with being the first banjo player in Soviet Russia, apparently made a banjo in the 1970s from a picture in a dictionary and learned to play it, after hearing Earl Scruggs on a homemade tape that reached him behind the Iron Curtain. I played some festivals during the time when his band Kukuruza was touring in the U.S. They caused a bit of a sensation, because they were so exotic, and quite good. Russian bluegrass?

Are lots of blues, country, heavy metal and polka bands all just a kind of musical theater? Are these genuine “roots” musicians or just actors? What if their learning techniques were the same? What if a black man from Mississippi takes up blues guitar? Is he automatically more "authentic" than an Australian or a Jewish person from Long Island who does the same thing? Is he more authentic if he works on a farm instead of being a lawyer or a chemist? I think the learning process is largely a matter of information, as is the idea of folklore and learning by the "folk process." (I wrote a lengthy blog on that topic.) Is all culture perhaps a complex type of improvisational theater? When Cajun families get together and eat traditional Cajun food and play Cajun music they are following traditions and adopting mannerisms that came before them. Are many musicians just actors who work at a single role for years on end?

I'm reminded of that old saying from school: "If you take it from just one source, it's plagiarism, but if you take it from many sources, it's research." Musicians who imitate just a single artist too closely open themselves up for criticism, while if they adopt the more vague mannerisms, costumes and musical clichés of a broader range of sources or what we call a genre, they instead become "knowledgeable" and perhaps "authentic." Instead of inventing your own way to play your fiddle on a certain song you might imitate what others have done and play something similar. That's what musical styles are about, and if you are attracted to the idea of fitting into a style it doesn't make you better or worse than other musicians who don't play in that style.

Singing Cowboys


Country music has long been filled with theatrical versions of authenticity, and right from its onset in the early days of the "singing cowboy," this genre of music has been deeply theatrical. Gene Autry was hugely popular in the 1930s as the most prominent of what was to become a long string of "singing cowboy" personas. He sold 100 million records and starred in hundreds of movies and television shows. Autry's rival Roy Rogers was born Leonard Slye, to a Jewish family, and after a stint as Len Sly and then as Dick Weston, he settled into the Roy Rogers role and for decades successfully propagated the mannerisms, costumes and musical clichés of the musical cowboy genre. Together with Canadian non-cowboy Robert Nobles (aka Bob Nolan) Rogers co-founded the Sons of the Pioneers, a very influential group that helped spawn the whole sub-genre of “cowboy music”. Country Music Hall of Famer Tex Ritter is another case in point. Born Woodward Ritter, he attended Northwestern Law School, but later adopted his singing cowboy stage persona and managed to embed himself in musical history more as a musical than a theatrical persona. Perhaps his Texas upbringing and Southern drawl lent him the "credibility" that allowed him to become regarded as a musical artist rather than an actor. The contemporary cowboy band Riders in the Sky are also a trio of highly-educated non-cowboys who formed a theatrical but musically quite “authentic” cowboy band in 1977 that to this day performs and records virtuosic cowboy music in a very similar way to how it was done in the 1930’s by the Sons of the Pioneers. The fiddler in that group, Paul Chrisman (aka Woody Paul), has a Ph.D. in theoretical plasma physics from MIT. (He's also an extremely good fiddler, and better than the other "cowboy fiddlers" I have heard.)

In his 1997 book "Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity," scholar/writer Richard Peterson looks deeply at how the irregular, home-made music of mostly Southern white musicians was turned into the marketed and consistent commodity we now call "country music." He argues that the key factor used to measure and appraise country music was that both listeners and industry people felt it needed to be "authentic." (He also argues that since the origin of the genre of country music there has been a repeating cycle of commercial vs. "authentic" branding that reverses every 30 years or so when an influential new artist pushes the trend pendulum the opposite way.) The primary appeal of country music has long been rooted in a feeling of authenticity that was generated by the performers and the music industry's marketing. Peterson describes a process where the authenticity in the music was bestowed on it not by an authority or some fixed method, but is "...continuously negotiated in an ongoing interplay between performers, diverse commercial interests, fans, and the evolving image." Whether or not you like country music, it's interesting to savor the details of how the music of peasants was packaged and adopted by a music industry that originally had a profound distaste for the music itself and the culture that created and consumed it. The record business was hungry to sell records and record players to as many customers as possible, and musicians at that time were lining up for the $35 or $75 fees that early record companies would pay artists. Both Peterson and country music historian emeritus Bill Malone feel that even in its infancy, what we call "country music" was built on an imagined and largely fictional remembrance of America's past. The irresistible allure of the simpler and better days of past or present rural life has always been, in the 1920s and today, at the core of the authenticity issue in country music.

The iconology and authenticity of country music is laced with all sorts of myths and contradictions, just as our melting pot culture celebrates contradictory icons like Yule logs, camels, reindeer, wise men from the East and mistletoe as parts of Christmas. According to historians, real 19th century cowboys didn't wear cowboy hats or ride horses while firing their 6-shooters. They mostly rode mules or walked, and wore sombreros. (Read Ian Frazier's amazing book "Great Plains" if you want to learn more about myths of cowboy life.) Cowboys also generally didn't play guitars or yodel, and most of them were black or Hispanic, not handsome white guys with good teeth. Bullets were extremely expensive in Dodge City in 1870; horses require oats, mules and donkeys can graze. Yet the image of the Hollywood cowboy has been so ingrained in us and romanticized that we recoil at the thought of historians taking it away from us like this.

The well-known bluegrass band Hot Rize created an interesting situation in the 1990s when they began to stop in the middle of their set of “authentic” bluegrass, put on different outfits and grab different instruments and become Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers, an electric 1940’s style country & western swing band for a few songs. The music of the two “groups” was equally accepted by audiences, and since the musicians were good and it was all done as good-natured entertainment, it didn’t seem to cause any uproar or loss of respect for the “authenticity” of the bluegrass band. Nor did it seem to have caused people to publicly question the “authenticity” of the whole genre of either kind of music as being much more than musical theater.

Music or musical theater?

There must have been some chatter about the 1990s rockabilly revival that brought us bands like the Stray Cats, who looked and sounded like a 1950s band, and really captured the flavor and spirit of that era of music that spawned rock & roll. That band could easily be called theater, but Brian Setzer, the driving force behind them, is a good musician and an exciting guitar player. Why can't he like rockabilly music, study it, learn how to do it, and share the results without being accused of being unauthentic? Is his love for Johnny Burnette's voice, Eddie Cochran's twanging tone or Scotty Moore's guitar licks any less genuine than someone who loved them 25 years earlier, in a different part of the country? You could easily accuse him of an "authenticity" violation, and say that what he did was too theatrical or even fake. I am sure this was the position taken by a lot of music critics and bystanders at the time, and I'd love to hear what Setzer has to say candidly on the subject.

Pop/electronica artist Moby took a number of scratchy old 78 recordings and layered them into a bed of electronic dance sounds on his multi-platinum 1999 album "Play." The voices of bluesmen and ballad singers from long ago transferred powerful feelings of authenticity that Moby successfully grafted onto a throbbing modern electronic sound collage. He cleverly threw a powerful source of cultural information and emotional content into a world that might as well have been a different planet than the one that originally birthed those old records. Did Moby love and respect that old music like he claims, and try to share its power in a new way, or did he exploit, subvert or disrespect it?

How "authentic" was Doc Watson?

doc watson

On the subject of what we might call "folk music theater," there may be an inherent and troublesome contradiction involving the idea of theatrically imitating someone who was just being themself, and someone whose art is celebrated for precisely that distinctiveness. But even that is fragile.

One of my favorite musicians of all time was Arthel "Doc" Watson (1923-2012), who certainly seemed to be a quite authentic version of a talented musician from the Southern mountains, steeped in regional music and the rural culture that nurtured it. But Doc's story reveals that he was perhaps a lot more theatrical than fans or casual listeners might think. When folklorist Ralph Rinzler found Doc, he was 38 years old and playing guitar in a band in North Carolina with a mountain banjo player named Clarence Ashley, who was one of the early recording artists from the 1920s that young music enthusiasts discovered in the highly-influential 6-album Anthology of American Folk Music that came out in 1952. Doc was also playing rockabilly style electric music on a Les Paul guitar in a dance band, doing street music in nearby Boone, NC, and tuning pianos to support his young family. (Doc's two children were born in 1949 and 1951.) Rinzler booked Doc at folk clubs in New York in 1962, where he was a hit, which launched his career. Rinzler shepherded Doc into the music business, got him a recording contract, but urged him to only play "authentic" music consistent with his image. He wrote in 1964 that "Doc Watson is not 'the real thing,' 'genuine article,' a 'pure folk singer.' Even before his appearance on the concert stage, Doc had learned his techniques and songs from recordings as well as from local and family tradition. The radio provided him with a fair share of material, and his experience playing with a local group at dances enabled him to develop his knowledge of pop-music guitar styles and harmonies." Rob Varak wrote that "...in much the same way that Muddy Waters learned to stow away his electric guitar for college and coffeehouse audiences, Watson knew intuitively what it was that his audience was looking for." 

Doc confessed to historian Bill Malone that he had to scramble to learn all the folk songs that everybody wanted to hear, and that they assumed he already knew. Doc had the musical skills, he had the right accent and attitude, and was willing to work hard and put together and present a nice concert show night after night featuring down-home music that showcased his virtuoso picking. Though he learned some folk songs and hymns from his family, he by no means absorbed the music of Appalachia the way we might romantically imagine, and he always did very scripted and theatrical shows, featuring clever jokes, with perfectly paced stage patter. Always an audience-pleaser, Doc consistently delivered his signature tunes like "Way Downtown" and "Deep River Blues" at every show. His biography and his stage persona matched so well, that it even seems like a type of sacrilege to point out the theater that was built into Doc's performances, and to suggest that he perhaps was not as "authentic" as he seemed. Doc didn't create stereotypes or impressions of authenticity– what he may have done was to successfully and willingly navigate existing pathways of perception. He always played some jazzy songs, and made a rockabilly album, and didn't perform in overalls or sitting on a hay bale. Maybe he was just a completely authentic, hard-working musical guy who put together a nice body of music that he performed well for almost 50 years. Maybe what he did was sufficiently authentic, even if it meant being somewhat theatrical about being rural and down-home. Doc played music he liked, and it always seemed that he was playing from the heart and not from a phony place. If there is blame to be assessed for musicians like Doc being non-authentic, maybe it should go with the music listeners or critics who demand authenticity, rather than with artists who feel compelled to provide it for their livelihood.

Musicians as actors...

great caruso

A Shakespearean actor or an opera singer is inhabiting a persona invented for that purpose, as is a movie actor playing the part of a fictional character. The singer Enrico Caruso was not really being himself when he sang the opera roles in his career, so does that mean that an actor could do a more credible job of playing him in a movie than a non-theatrical musician? Maybe I should watch The Great Caruso, starring Mario Lanza, though if it isn't good it doesn't mean the role couldn't be done better by someone else.

I never saw Hal Holbrook do his famous Mark Twain imitation, and there are plenty of TV and movie actors over the years who have played the parts of real people like JFK, General Patton and Daniel Boone. I guess there may be no consensus on whether the various filmmakers succeeded in these situations, either for any particular movie, or for the whole idea of actors pretending to be famous musicians or personalities of the past.

I see ads in my newspaper for a show that is a tribute to Patsy Cline. Presumably there were auditions, and somebody who you would have to call a "musician" more than an "actor" got the job, presumably because she looks right, can sing Patsy's songs convincingly, and has enough acting skill or stage presence to make the show producers and audiences happy. Patsy isn't around to sing her songs anymore, and it's hard to argue that there is something wrong with giving audiences a show like this, though fans of "authentic" country music might quarrel with it. Maybe it's OK if you say up front that it is theater. There is also a tribute to Billie Holiday coming soon.

I went with my kids to see the Million Dollar Quartet show at the local theater. My boys were too young to understand the issues, but the guy who played the role of Jerry Lee Lewis was incredibly talented, and he sang and played the piano more than convincingly. Our boys wanted to meet him, got his autograph and bought his CD, but he was even confused about his authenticity, and didn't know whether to sign his real name or "Jerry Lee Lewis" on the show program. When our kids listened to the album they bought, it was his original songs, not the 1950s show soundtrack. It was good music, but it didn't sound anything like what they had heard at the show, and clearly confused them in ways they couldn't express.

Fake name, fake music?

When a musician adopts a pseudonym it is a clue that their plan may not to merely to "be themselves," though it's another debate question as to whether that might disqualify them from being seen as authentic artists, if there is such a thing. Elton John was born Reginald Dwight, and Ringo Starr was born Richard Starkey. Texas songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker started out in New York State as Ronald Clyde Crosby, and let's not forget that Robert Zimmerman has played the role of Bob Dylan for over 50 years. (Here is one list of pseudonyms if you are curious.) It also might be the case that now in the age of first MTV and now YouTube, increasingly everyone has to be an actor and be able to do their thing on screen. Musicians who can act and who are comfortable on camera might become the dominant life forms in the musical jungle, as watching music on the screen replaces merely listening.

High-profile pop artists like Lady Gaga or David Bowie essentially created their own personal musical theater roles as pop stars, since they either played the role of or publicly became fictional characters they were inventing as they went along. Bowie was born David Robert Jones, and for her first 20 years Gaga was known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Maybe role-playing is necessary in order to do what they do on that level, since pop stars with fake names have always been common, though originally it probably was done most often to avoid awkward names rather than to create and inhabit show-biz personas.

Music and acting have a long relationship, where musicians try to be actors or actors try to be musicians, and there have always been very blurry lines between them. Here is a list I found of the Top 20 actor/musicians. (In this list only Sinatra predates the last 15 or 20 years, so it's by no means a definitive assessment of the situation.) Not long after movies and television began, there were roles starring musicians, and many singers like Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley also appeared on the screen. Only one musician, Jared Leto, from the band Thirty Seconds to Mars, has won an acting Oscar (2014 Best Supporting Actor). He was hardly a major musician, and they never came close to having a hit song or being pop stars, though the band was respected and reasonably successful.

In the world of movies involving music I know about, I immediately think of a lot of awkward roles like Walk the Line, where actress Reese Witherspoon played June Carter Cash and Joaquin Phoenix tried to sing like Johnny Cash. I thought that movie was pure stereotype and 2-dimensional, though most people tell me they loved it. ( I have read both Cash's biography and his autobiography.) Reese may even be a better singer than June Carter, but she wasn't June Carter, and I wonder whether she could have gotten Johnny Cash to stop drinking and go to church. Karate Kid actor Ralph Macchio did a nice job of playing the role of a teenager trying to learn the blues in the movie Crossroads, but Joe Seneca should have been celebrated for his brilliant performance as blues legend Willie Brown. Guitar god Steve Vai played his role beautifully in that movie, though it wasn't quite an acting job, since he essentially played himself.

Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz played the role of Ricky Ricardo, a fictionalized version of himself, in the old TV show I Love Lucy, which was similar but much less involved than comedian Jerry Seinfeld's bold plan to play the role of comedian Jerry Seinfeld in his show Seinfeld. I found the A Prairie Home Companion movie to be actually painful, where Woody Harrelson, Meryl Streep and the other Hollywood actors did in my opinion a lousy job of playing musicians, while the great musicians like Pat Donohue, Andy Stein and Rich Dworsky who were in the house band for the radio show weren't allowed in the movie, perhaps because they weren't good actors, in the union, or were not cute or famous enough.

The only movie I have ever seen that portrayed my type of musician accurately was the 2007 Irish movie Once, which starred Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as singer/songwriters. They were singer/songwriters in real life, and they wrote and performed the music in the movie. I wasn't the only one who liked the movie, since they won the Oscar for Best Original Song, though it could spark a lot of conversation and debate as to whether they were actors, musicians, or both, how well they succeeded, or why there aren't more movies where musicians comfortably play the role of what they have spent years learning to do.

Digging into the issue of actors playing musicians or musicians being theatrical seems to lead to more and more questions. What exactly does the movie Nina teach us about Nina Simone, her struggle, or her music? Was it supposed to teach us, or merely entertain? Would she approve of what it shows or teaches us, or where the money was spent or earned? The movie certainly publicized her, and possibly spread her name and her music to new places, but was that all good? Who made whatever money was generated by royalties on the songs in the movie? Her daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud and her brother Sam Waymon came out publicly against the movie, though you wonder what they would think of a young musician who tried to learn her music and perform it the way a young jazz band might mimic the look, sound and feel of the jazz pioneers. Bluegrass music pioneer Bill Monroe was not flattered when other bands began imitating the sound of the Bluegrass Boys. After a few decades he stopped complaining and settled into the role of being "The Father of Bluegrass," and later in life was fine with young bands copying him, and even annoyed when they didn't.

Theatrical Jazz?

If you are a jazz fan, you might have already started thinking about whether or not there might some day be a theater show called "Armstrong" or "Coltrane." It's one thing to memorize recorded performances by Elvis or Patsy Cline, but how could an actor portray a musician whose art form was built around being highly skilled, improvising and never playing things the same way twice? How could an actor get good enough at soloing and improvising to be able to do a credible imitation of artists like Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane?

I just watched a gypsy jazz band (Rhythm Future Quartet) play some Django Reinhardt/Stefan Grapelli music. The players used similar instruments and playing techniques to what the Hot Club Quintet used a century ago, but used their own names and clearly saw themselves to be artists and musicians, and not actors of any sort. They played some "authentic" music from the 1920s, and also played their own compositions in a similar style. They did not set off any alarms in me that said "fake" or "un-authentic," though I couldn't help but wonder what everyone else was thinking. The genre of "gypsy jazz" is a relatively new and obscure one, and maybe the norms haven't been established, or the audience is not large enough for there to be warring factions.

Genuine Blues

In Elijah Wald's epic book "Escaping the Delta," he examines the facts and myths surrounding the life and music of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. The fact that Johnson recorded just 29 songs before his untimely death in 1938 at age 27, and because he was unusually skilled and passionate, all sorts of myths about him and about blues and African-American music in general ran wild after the release of Johnson's work in 1961 by Columbia Records. The "King of the Delta Blues Singers" album, produced by record company legend John Hammond Sr., caused Bob Dylan and other folk artists, as well as prominent young rock artists like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton to become fascinated with Johnson's music and his story. I bought a copy in 1971 that I still have.

Wald reminds us repeatedly that the birth of the whole genre of blues music was greatly assisted and possibly even caused by record company marketing, and that it was not some creature living in the swamps of the Mississippi delta that crawled onto the land to enthrall us with its power and mystery. Robert Johnson was not an accidental product of folklore or some cultural gem found in the rough. According to Wald's analysis, Johnson was a skilled musician, fluent in many musical genres of the day, who was trying to get a record contract and succeed in the new music business that offered serious income to African-Americans who otherwise had few economic options. The recording engineer Don Law said that Johnson was shy, and afraid to even face the recording equipment, writing in 1961 that Johnson "...sat on a chair in a corner, facing the wall." New insights indicate that Johnson was not a shy kid, but was actually using a technique called "corner loading" that was common in the pre-amplification music world, where performers used the reflective physics of the corners of rooms to project their sound acoustically.

mamie smithmamie smith Mamie Smith

No doubt there was a thread of folk culture that brought pentatonic musical scales and complex African rhythms into the African-American culture of the American South in the early 1900s, but it may have been primarily the nascent recording industry that birthed the blues genre as we know it. The word "blues" first appeared as a novelty song idea, and exploded when vaudeville singer Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920. She was the first African-American to record a blues song, though we can never be certain whether fascination with blues itself, with Smith as an artist, or with African-American culture in general caused the explosion. The record sold a million copies in its first year, and sold best in the African-American communities. The discovery of this new market for music sales is what triggered the search for other blues artists to record. It's even been speculated that a lot of black people in America first heard blues music on the radio or on the early recordings, and that blues music was not automatically a part of every black American's life or cultural inheritance at that time.

It's a confusing but not an insignificant thing that throughout the last half century or more, the "blues" genre has been something that has been consumed and enjoyed vastly more by white audiences than black. A number of the best practitioners of the genre, especially acoustic blues, are also white, which really bothers some people. Other skilled white players include Paul Rishell, John Hammond, Michael Jerome Brown, Catfsh Keith and Scott Ainslie. Paul Geremia (pronounced Jeremiah) is among the best delta blues players ever, and I know him pretty well. Some might glance at Paul playing old blues songs and accuse him of some kind of racism or cultural theft (prominent music writer Nick Tosches makes no secret of his disdain for white performers playing blues), though others of us see Geremia as "authentic," and an exceptionally dedicated, passionate, scholarly and hard-working musician. Paul and others like him happen to think that the guitar blues recorded in the 1920s and 1930s is some of the best music ever made, worth learning to do really well, and even to devote one's artistic life to mastering and sharing. That kind of approach is one that treats delta blues as a classical art form, where there is a repertoire, a skill set, and a right and wrong way to do things. Makes sense to me, and you can tap your toe to it as well as marvel at its complexity and beauty. Are Paul's old clothing and beat-up car merely props in his personal blues theater, or is it just that he doesn't make much money and can't afford a new car? It makes sense that he would be uncomfortable wearing shiny new clothes or sporting a fancy haircut as he plays music created by poor, rural people of the past, though many of those old bluesmen always dressed up when they performed.

The money problem...

The impact of the Copyright Law of 1909, the creation of ASCAP, and the early systems of assigning publishing rights and royalties to intellectual property in the early wildcatting days of the 1920s record business were also important but invisible driving forces in establishing how things were done in the record business, and how we Americans perceive our own culture. It shouldn't surprise anyone that money played a large role, above just the love of music or the altruistic desire to give African-Americans and impoverished rural people publicity, respect or a fair share of profits.

Early record company executive Ralph Peer was behind the Mamie Smith "Crazy Blues" recording, as well as the first recordings of what we now call old-time and country music, including Fiddlin' John Carson, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Peer was a businessman to the core, primarily motivated by deals that allowed him to take ownership of copyrights and publishing rights of all the music he was "finding." I read his biography, and Peer seems to me to be much more of an opportunist than a folklorist or an enthusiast, and for a long time did not even try to conceal his disdain for hillbilly music and culture, even as he packaged and sold it for a living. The driving force behind his contribution to American roots music may have had little to do with the cultural provenance of the music or the "authenticity" of the artists. Peer's success at selling folk music and in creating some of its most iconic and seminal recordings have made him appear to be a headwaters of our modern appreciation for roots music, but his motives may have been entirely monetary. He admitted from the beginning that his interest in the new fields of "race music" and "hillbilly music" revolved around his taking ownership of the now-lucrative publishing rights of the music he recorded, much of which his company Southern Music owns to this day. Peer worked for no salary, and worked out a deal with Victor whereby he was paid by taking ownership of the publishing rights to the music he recorded for the label. Sound a little suspicious?

This is the central issue in our modern assessment of Peer and his impact on American culture, and now that roots music is sexy and fashionable, his children and remaining friends now talk as though he was celebrating ethnic music all along rather than just exploiting it for financial gain. Perhaps he was able to do both. A lot of the hard data and his early writings say that he was just interested in owning and selling it, and he made a point to show how "cultured" and "refined" he was. He dressed impeccably and cultivated camellia flowers, presumably to show that he himself was not a hillbilly. Peer's financial success and not his artistic integrity is what caused other record companies to imitate him, and thus record other folk, country and blues music.

I've written quite a bit about the mission, vision and mistakes of pioneering folklorists John & Alan Lomax, since they had such an impact on our collective understanding of our American "people's music" heritage. The father and son pursued what we see now as a rather narrow vision of pure and authentic African-American music, culminating in their strange relationship with Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, whom they found in a Louisiana prison. They celebrated and promoted him, managed his career, and took 2/3 of his earnings as a performer as stipulated in a 5-year contract they signed. The Lomaxes' obsessive quest for what they saw as authenticity in American folk music was summed up in John's description of their "discovery" Leadbelly: "...He plays and sings with absolute sincerity... To me his music is real music." The Lomaxes were bothered that Leadbelly also wanted to sing cowboy songs like Gene Autry's "Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" or popular jazz songs of the day, and they pushed him to only sing blues and folk songs when they presented him to New York City audiences in the 1930s as a living embodiment of a possibly mythical, primitive kind of music they seemed eternally fascinated with. John Lomax wrote in 1932 that he wanted black music to make him feel "carried across to Africa... as if I were listening to the tom-toms of savage blacks."

It's puzzling that the Lomaxes packaged and shaped Leadbelly's image, and even influenced what songs he was allowed to sing in concert according to their concept of authenticity, and especially that this didn't seem to bother them or make them feel insincere, hucksterish or fake as they pimped him. In all their writings I find an unwavering belief in their antiquated and racist core ideas revolving around an imagined relationship between race and music. As with most true believers, it was all done without a hint of the maybes or tentative hypothesizing that more cautious or less evangelical researchers might convey.

Keeping It Real

Faking It

"Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music" is an ambitious and interesting book by Barker & Taylor that spotlights a group of musicians as diverse as John Hurt, Jimmie Rodgers, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, The Monkees, Johnny Rotten, Donna Summer and some other icons from various eras. The authors detail the nearly paradoxical pursuit of either stylistic or personal authenticity by either the artists or their fans, as well as in the marketing and publicity behind them that portray the artists as being genuine rather than "fake" or theatrical. It's as if the audiences expect the artists to be sufficiently but not overly theatrical in their portrayal of themselves, or at least in projecting the personas that the music fans and music business marketing campaigns have associated with the artists.

The punk music movement grew from a feeling that too much technique and presentation got in the way of the purity and authenticity of the self-expression in music. As rock music grew more artsy and progressive in the wake of the Beatles and the newer glam-rock bands, punk found a fertile breeding ground. "Of the many varieties of self-expression, it is the most primitive that rock fans associate with emotional honesty," Barker & Taylor write. But once the Sex Pistols had to perform concerts and sell records, they became trapped in a strange place where their very success made their fans threaten to reject them for "selling out" or not "keeping it real" and they quickly began to feel like they were losing the ability to express themselves genuinely. Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana played music that captured and spoke to the feelings of alienation and angst of American teenagers in the early 1990s, but when that became a packaged commodity and sold millions of records, it also became self-contradictory, and fans lost the ability to identify with the artists unless the artists became more theatrical and perpetuated the audience's image of them.

Most pop artists battle with something like this. They often feel obliged to prove how artistically serious they are, and the publicity materials their record companies put out often emphasize their genuine and authentic sides. The emotional strain of trying to live up to their images may contribute to drinking, drug use and the high suicide rate for this kind of artist. The artist's early music comes "authentically" from their own life, but if they capture what feels like genuine expressions of loss, loneliness, joy or anything else that audiences identify with, they then become at risk of being catapulted into a weird and luxurious new world of hotels, jets, tour buses, groupies and big money. If you then sing genuinely about your real feelings of being rich, and being in your tour bus or on your yacht, it is hard for those listeners to identify with the new you, and you can instantly appear to be "fake" to others. It must be devastating to work hard to demonstrate how real or honest you are, and then have fans accuse you of being fake.

In "Faking It," Barker & Taylor argue that punk music, disco and electronic dance music also grappled with various complicated issues of authenticity and public image. The outrageous and up-front portrayals of sexuality in disco & dance music became a new type of authenticity, and the adoption of disco by the LGBTQ community put big pressure on musicians to deal appropriately and in new ways with gender stereotypes, and also with the rising feelings and needs of that community that was eager to "out" itself and publicly declare its identity. Complex stuff hiding in what seemed to many to be mindless pop dance music... LGBTQ and black audiences, who often struggled with either hiding or revealing their own sexuality, identified strongly and found meaning in a seemingly fake and escapist music that came from artists who seemed to have revealed and celebrated similar things in themselves.

Authenticity and provenance

Some observers have long felt that a key to the authenticity puzzle has to do with how the music was learned. Some have tried to draw a line in musical culture to separate those who learned from broadcast and recording media as contrasted with those who learned from each other by the "folk process." (I wrote a long blog on the folk process.) This implies that part of the authenticity thing might come from the path the cultural information took to get to the artist, which is a very critical question I hope I never have to pass judgement on. My observation about Europeans and Australians imitating American ethnic music forms is that they often get the guitar or piano parts sounding quite good, but Italians singing Delta blues sound like Italians singing Delta blues, and all the Japanese people singing bluegrass I have heard sound like Japanese people singing bluegrass. We have an accent if we learn a language beyond the age of between 5 and 10, and I can't think of any Europeans who sing convincingly like Big Mama Thornton, Bill Monroe or Otis Redding. (Though Norwegian singer Rita Eriksen sings really good blues and folk-rock.) So maybe the instrumentalists will be able to "fake" their way through genres of music, but not the singers, though there are those legendary Asian "sound-alike" phonetic bands who perform Western pop music nearly perfectly by just mimicking sounds and not even understanding the lyrics.

If you want a band to play 1920’s string band music from the Southern mountains, you don’t have to find one, you can create one almost anywhere, even in Europe or Japan. The knowledge is available of what songs to play, how to play the instruments, how to sing, and even how to dress. So when is this “authentic music” and when is it merely theater? The Johnson Mountain Boys became a very respected bluegrass band in the 1980’s and 1990’s, known for sounding and behaving a lot like the original Bill Monroe 1940’s band. The fact seems to have vanished that they were educated guys from suburban Washington D.C. who consciously chose their musical path after first learning songs from Bob Dylan and other pop artists of the day. Yet they were consistently hailed throughout their career as being more “authentic” than other contemporary bluegrass bands.

I was recently performing at a large folk festival, and at the after-hours party there were a dozen or more musicians jamming together, playing what is usually referred to as "old-time" string band music. Their version of "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" jumped out at me because it sounded great and was very spirited. But it was a double paradox: professional folk musicians were playing an anthem of the folk process that undoubtedly all of them had learned from audio or video and not from fellow villagers in the remote mountain towns they grew up in. If they had been "authentic" rural folk musicians from isolated places who learned traditional tunes from their families and neighbors they would likely not have all known the same song or the same version, and would probably have been out of tune, and had much more difficulty jamming together.

Perhaps the most evolutionarily advanced type of "authentic" music may already be here. It comes from people who voluntarily choose cultural isolation by consciously embracing a style or genre exclusively. The Johnson Mountain Boys adopted the sound and the costumes of the 1950s classic bluegrass bands, and played it with what looked to be real emotion and skill. This process may have been going on for a long time in many genres of music. It's quite possible that in the 1920s Bix Beiderbecke also selectively ignored all the music around him except the jazz he was interested in. The young Rolling Stones, obsessively listening to blues records, were a form of the same thing, ignoring whatever music they were learning in school or from their parents and choosing to study American blues. Did the young Charley Patton in 1910 also ignore other types of music and just learn Delta blues because he chose to? Or did he also know a lot of other music that the record companies and folklorists were not interested in recording?

Nothing would stop someone from choosing to listen to and study only one era of music, and what they could now learn from modern channels of information would be a much larger body of knowledge than anything previously available, possibly even to people who lived in those eras. From roughly 1930 to 2000 people only heard music if they were in the broadcast radius of a radio station, listening at the right time, or else they had to have a recording, and hope it had some useful information on the back of the record. (Access to video of musical performances was harder in the past, though the song or dance scenes in popular movies had a huge impact on viewers.) Now an aficionado of old music can get easy access to live performances, lyrics, transcriptions, out-takes, liner notes and all sorts of other valuable and useful information. It's incredible to me that John Tefteller paid $37000 for one of only 2 known copies of a 1929 Tommy Johnson 78rpm record, with “Alcohol And Jake Blues” and “Ridin’ Horse,” and that he carefully remastered it and made it freely available for others to listen to. (It's possibly more incredible that anyone with access to a web browser can go to YouTube and instantly observe that it's the same guitar lick as Johnson's "Canned Heat Blues." You might listen to either of them and think that they are boring, presumably because you didn't invest thousands of dollars like Tefteller did, or because you don't understand or appreciate the reasons that made Tefteller willing to spend that kind of money. My kids would hate both songs, yet music collectors see this music as something incredibly pure, real and valuable. Confusing stuff.

Benjamin Filene’s stunning book “Romancing the Folk” first opened my eyes to how the public imagination and concepts of what we think of American folk music were not just inevitable products of some glacial set of cultural forces. (Read some of the book here.) Filene shows how a small number of motivated individuals, including academics and folklorists as well as record company business people all made choices, brilliant or flawed, for various reasons, that have greatly affected and shaped what the public's image of its own inherited music has become. Our ideas of what “authentic” blues or country music are were essentially marketed to us, almost as effectively as products like diamonds or breakfast cereal have been imprinted onto our consciousness as they are being sold to us.

Maybe this “information” and “network” thinking offends our nationalistic sensibilities, but ultimately the spread of information, while it does dilute and change the thing being studied, is good for the preservation of the music. Styles of playing are more likely to survive and grow in an information-rich environment. It might be the same kind of thinking involved in preserving endangered species. Maybe styles of music are like wild animals, and the issues of which ones breed successfully in captivity come to the forefront. The very earliest 78's of John Carson's fiddling from the 1920s were sold as "authentic" glimpses of a fading art form. In his 1765 book of ancient minstrel poetry, Thomas Percy laments as he sifts through old manuscripts that the really old and good stuff has already faded away into antiquity.

The Future of "Authenticity"

Now that information is spreading unimaginably fast in the age of the internet, a key thing we are learning is about how information moved around or didn’t move around in the past. In the past, it was the norm for music to be local and to fit into a pattern that resembled music being made nearby. It appears that now in the age of the internet, almost everyone and everything will tend toward being eclectic. Mixed genres, hybrids and cross-pollenization of ideas will be almost unavoidable in an era where any observer has instant access to a nearly infinite variety of musical ideas and skills via internet videos and streaming audio. I see young musicians who obviously are influenced by Patsy Cline, Charlie Poole, Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday, yet 50 years ago it would have been very difficult for an individual to be in the musical headlight beam of those very different strains of music. My musician wife Joyce Andersen has always said that her two favorite singers were Ralph Stanley and Billie Holiday, which is a fine example of the way our American melting pot melts. Toss in her other favorites like Tina Turner, Barbara Dane or Archie Fisher and you have an unclassifiable but typical modern hybrid.

The “roots” music world is now showing signs of becoming almost a musical Jurassic Park where the dinosaur DNA is preserved and even modified to make new animals. Modern people should not be surprised when other modern people figure out how to recreate or mimic music that does not exist around them or has become culturally extinct. I have a friend who sings Native American songs and participates in pow wows and drumming events, who says that 21st century American Indian people are making great use of the internet and digital technologies to explore and share their music with each other. They exchange mp3 files of rare or obscure recordings or videos that capture the essence of the music, and as a result the music is growing in strength and popularity. They can't turn on a radio and hear it. But more people are learning to sing and drum from each other because they want to. A resurgence of skill and repertoire due to digital information sharing is allowing people who are geographically inaccessible to each other to learn from each other and share their own knowledge in ways that they feel are greatly beneficial to the growth, enjoyment and preservation of traditional art forms. YouTube is only 10 years old as I write this, and it's been only the last couple years that it has become a dominant music education format. It's going to be interesting to see if precocious toddlers in Europe start learning music from YouTube videos and really get all the nuances of music and language right. It does seem rather inevitable that things are going to get more interesting, and blurred lines will get blurrier.

It’s not just the musicians that evolve– the listeners and the cultural context of music itself are changing as everything and everyone sloshes around in the proverbial melting pot. If you listen to country radio, each of us might imagine that we have some understanding of why those artists and those songs are featured, and if you go to jazz concerts, you presumably have your own understanding of how the audience came to listen to those musicians play the material chosen for the concert. Our own perspectives are as unique as fingerprints, and it becomes quite a job to compare our own experiences, expectations and vantage points as both players and listeners.

Good luck finding the music that properly feeds your personal need for musical authenticity, and I apologize retroactively if I popped any bubbles or ruined your idyllic appreciation for any music you hold dear.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,